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Verses Teaching Salvation by Works?

By Gary F. Zeolla

There are some verses in the Bible that seem to teach that salvation is by works, not grace. But do these verses really teach such? This article will look at some of these verses. All verses are quoted from the forthcoming second edition of the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament.

Matthew 5:20

"For I say to you*, unless your* righteousness greatly exceeds [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, by no means shall you* enter into the kingdom of the heavens."

Today, the term "Pharisee" generally has a negative connotation to it. Christians are taught to view the Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites. But this was not the case at the time of Christ. At that time, the Pharisees were viewed as the epitome of righteousness. If anyone was getting into heaven, it would be the Pharisees.

But by telling His hears that their righteousness needed to "greatly exceed" that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was pointing out the futility of a works-based righteousness. If even the Pharisees were not righteous enough, then no one could be. To emphasize this point, Jesus went on to say:

21"You heard that it was said to the ancients: "You will not murder," but whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. [Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17] 22But I say to you*, every[one] being enraged at his brother without cause will be in danger of the judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Empty-headed fool!' will be in danger of the high council, and whoever says, ‘You worthless fool!' will be in danger of the hell [Gr., gehenna] of the fire [or, the fiery hell]…."

27"You heard that it was said: ‘You will not commit adultery.' [Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18] 28But I say to you*, every[one] looking on a woman in order to lust after her already committed adultery [with] her in his heart" (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28).

So if you get angry at someone without a cause, it is the same as murder; if you lust after another man's wife, it's the same as if you slept with her. These are standards that are impossible to keep. And that is Jesus' point; it is simply futile to try to make ourselves "good enough" for God. So rather than Matthew 5:20 saying we need to vigorously "work" to be righteous like the scribes and Pharisees did, the passage in its historical and literary context is showing us the futility of a works based righteousness.

Matthew 12:37

"For by your words you will be justified [or, declared righteous], and by your words you will be condemned."

This verse seems to be saying that what we say is a form of "works" which can either save or damn us. But again, the context is important. In the preceding verses Jesus had said:

33"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree rotten and its fruit rotten, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34Brood of vipers! How are you* able to be speaking good things, being evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35The good person out of the good treasure [within him] brings forth good [things], and the evil person out of the evil treasure [within him] brings forth evil [things]. 36But I say to you*, every idle [or, careless] word which the people shall speak, they will render an account concerning it in [the] day of judgment. 37For by your words you will be justified [or, declared righteous], and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt 12:33-37).

So in this passage, Jesus is telling us that a person's words reveals what the person truly is inside. A "good" person will bring forth good things while an "evil" person will bring forth evil things. In other words, it is our inner nature that determines our actions. And that is what matters to God.

But how is it that one person is "good" and another is "evil?" Jesus says elsewhere "No one [is] good except One-God" (Matt 19:17). And Paul tells us, "[There] is not a righteous [person], not even one" (Romans 3:10, quoting Psalm 14:1).

This is where the whole concept of regeneration comes in. Until God regenerates us by His grace, were are "evil." It is only by His regenerating grace that this evil nature is transformed into a "good" nature that can bring forth good fruits (Titus 3:5, 1Peter 1:3).

Matthew 19:16-22

16And look! Someone having approached said to Him, "Good teacher, what good [thing] shall I do that I shall be having eternal life?" 17But He said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one [is] good except One-God. But if you desire to enter into that life, keep the commandments." 18He says to Him, "Which [ones]?" So Jesus said, "‘You will not murder; You will not commit adultery; You will not steal; You will not give false testimony; 19Honor your father and mother;' and, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.'" [Exod 20:12-16; Deut 5:16-20; Lev 19:18]

20The young man says to Him, "All these I myself obeyed from my youth; what am I still lacking?" 21Jesus said to him, "If you desire to be perfect, be going away; sell your possessions and give to [the] poor [ones], and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! Be following Me!" 22But the young man having heard the word, went away sorrowing [or, distressed], for he was having many possessions.

In this passage, Jesus seems to be telling the person that by keeping the Ten Commandments and by selling his goods, he would be saved. But again, the statement in verse 17 needs to be noted, "No one [is] good except One-God." And again, the next verses are important:

23Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Positively, I say to you*, with difficulty will a rich [person] enter into the kingdom of the heavens. 24Now again I say to you*, it is easier [for] a camel to pass through an eye of a needle, than [for] a rich [person] to enter into the kingdom of God."

25So His disciples having heard were extremely amazed, saying, "In that case, who is able to be saved?" 26But Jesus having looked attentively [at them], said to them, "With people this is impossible, but with God all [things] {are} possible!"

Today, rich people are often viewed with some form of "suspicion, " that they must have done something immoral to have attained so much wealth, or even that the very having of riches must somehow "corrupt" the person. But this was not the case at the time of Christ. Then, having riches was viewed as God's blessing upon the person due to their righteousness. So someone who was exceptionally rich must be exceptional righteous.

But Jesus turned this on its head by His rather humorous statement, "it is easier [for] a camel to pass through an eye of a needle, than [for] a rich [person] to enter into the kingdom of God." The disciples were dumbfounded by this statement; hence their reply, "In that case, who is able to be saved?" Their attitude was, "If even a rich person cannot be saved, then what chance is there for anyone else?"

But Jesus takes the focus off of themselves and the rich and points them towards God, "With people this is impossible, but with God all [things] {are} possible!" It is only through God's grace that it is possible for us to be saved.

Romans 2:5-10

5But according to your hardness [fig., obstinacy] and impenitent heart, you are storing up for yourself wrath in [the] day of wrath and of revelation and of [the] righteous judgment of God, 6who ‘will render to each [person] according to his works,' [Psalm 62:12; Prov 24:12] 7to the [ones] on the one hand [who] by perseverance of good work seek glory and honor and incorruptibility [or, immortality], eternal life; 8but on the other hand to the [ones who are] selfishly ambitious and [who are] refusing to believe the truth, but obey unrighteousness, anger and wrath, 9affliction and distress upon every soul of a person, the one working the evil, both of Jew first and of Greek; 10but glory and honor and peace to every [one who] works the good, both to Jew first and to Greek. 11For [there] is no accepting of faces [fig., prejudice] with God.

In this passage, Paul quotes the Old Testament where it says that God "will render to each [person] according to his works." Paul then goes on to state that perseverance in good works will be rewarded with eternal life, while those who "obey unrighteousness" will be subjected to "anger and wrath."

But, as always, the context is important here. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul had shown how the Gentiles were condemned before God. But he knew that the Jews could then be "smug' thinking they were in God's good graces. So he begins this chapter by saying, " For this reason, you are without excuse [or, defense], O person, every[one] judging, for in what you judge [or, pass sentence on] the other, you condemn yourself, for the same [things] you, the one judging, are practicing!"

Paul's point is to show the Jews that their heritage would not save them. They would be just as condemned before God as the Gentiles. So in the passage above, Paul is saying that both Jews and Gentiles will be judged. This can be seen clearly in the next verse, "12For as many as sinned without [the] Law will also perish without [the] Law; and as many as sinned in [the] Law will be judged by means of [the] Law. " But still, it does seem like Paul is saying ones works will be rewarded with eternal life.

But to be sure that his readers did not get this misimpression, in the next chapter Paul makes it clear in no uncertain terms that no one is righteous before God by their works:

9What then? Are we [any] better? Certainly not! For we previously charged [that] both Jews and Greeks are all under sin, 10just as it has been written:

"[There] is not a righteous [person], not even one. 11[There] is not [one] understanding; there is not [one] diligently seeking after God. 12All turned aside, together they became unprofitable; [there] is not [one] doing kindness [or, what is right], [there] is not so much as one. [Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccl 7:20] 13Their throat [is] a grave having been opened; with their tongues they deceived; [the] venom of poisonous snakes [is] under their lips. [Psalm 5:9; 140:3] 14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. [Psalm 10:7] 15Their feet [are] swift to shed blood. 16Ruin and misery [are] in their ways. 17And [the] way of peace they did not know. [Isaiah 59:7,8] 18[There] is no fear of God before their eyes." [Psalm 36:1]

19Now we know that as many [things] as the Law says, it speaks to the [ones] in the Law, so that every mouth shall be stopped [fig., silenced] and all the world shall become answerable to God. 20Therefore, by works of [the] Law not will all flesh [or, will no flesh] be justified [or, declared righteous] before Him, for by means of [the] Law is [the] full [or, true] knowledge of sin.

So Paul's whole point throughout this passage is that both Jews and Gentiles will be judged guilty before God. This then leads Paul to declare empathically that salvation is through faith:

21But now apart from [the] Law has the righteousness of God been revealed, being testified to by the Law and the Prophets, 22but the righteousness of God [is] through faith [or, trust] in Jesus Christ to all and upon all the ones believing, for there is no difference [or, distinction]. 23For all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified [or, declared righteous] freely by His grace through the redemption [or, setting free], the [one] in Christ Jesus, 25whom God Himself put forward publicly [as] a mercy seat [or, propitiation] through faith in His blood, for a demonstration of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins having previously occurred in the tolerance of God, 26for a demonstration of His righteousness in the present time, for Him to be righteous and justifying the [one] [or, declaring the [one] righteous] [who has] faith in Jesus.

Revelation 20:11-13

11And I saw a great white throne and the One sitting on it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away, and a place was not found for them. 12And I saw the dead, the great and the small, having stood before the throne, and scrolls were opened, and another scroll was opened, which is [the Scroll] of Life. And the dead were judged by the [things] having been written in the scrolls, according to their works. 13And the sea gave up the dead, the [ones] in it, and death and the realm of the dead [Gr. hades] gave up the dead, the [ones] in them. And they were judged, each one according to their works.

This passage seems to be saying that at the end of time, all will be judged "according to their works." And I will say that this is the most difficult verse being addressed in article. But A.T. Robertson's comments on this verse are probably accurate, "We are saved by grace, but character at last (according to their works) is the test as the fruit of the tree (Mt 7:16,20; 10:32f.; 25:31-46; Joh 15:6; 2Co 5:10; Ro 2:10; Re 2:23; 20:12; 22:12)."

So the point of saying "according to their works" is that our works are a sign of who are we are inside. Robertson references Revelation 2:23. It states, "and all the assemblies will know that I am the One searching kidneys and hearts [fig., thoughts and inner selves], and I will give to you*, to each [one] according to your* works." So the judging "according to works" is because Jesus knows who we are inside, our true "inner selves." And that is what is truly being judged.

Conclusion

There are other verses that could be quoted by those who try to say salvation is by works, not grace. The most famous example of James chapter two would require an entire article in itself to cover. But the above discussion should give the reader an idea of how to respond to such verses.

References:
Scripture taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible. Copyright 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).

Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament. Broadman Press, 1934, as found on BibleWorksfor Windows™ Copyright 1992-1999 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan.

The above article was posted on this Web site in May 20, 2004.
It first appeared on the free Darkness to Light newsletter.

Forgiveness and Salvation     Verse Evaluations

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